Fr. Moses Berry, the president of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, has often been asked for advice about sharing the Orthodox faith with African-Americans. He frequently responds, “You evangelize to blacks the same way you would to whites or anyone else. You make them feel welcome in your parish.” In this divisive and charged atmosphere of differences in our nation, it is essential that the Church develops and cultivates a heart that welcomes all who come through our doors.
It is not unusual for people of all walks of life to feel that doors are constantly closing in their faces. This applies not only to issues of race, but also political ideals, economic status, educational level as well. Even when the things that separate us are minor, our differences can be elevated by social media and 24-hour “news” outlets on television, radio, the internet, and print. It is almost impossible for any of us to harbor strong opinions on any topic. In every part of the country, Christian denominations are made up of people who are alike in every way from the square footage of their homes to the sports teams they follow.
Being a part of an ethnic group gives us a feeling of belonging and a sense of pride. Greek festivals, Black History Month, July 4th all help to solidify our identity. Yet, as Orthodox Christians, we are called to see ourselves and each other as part of the kingdom of God and as images created in His image and likeness. Politics are not to restrict how much we love each other. The color of skin and the amount of “green” in our wallets must not determine who is not our brother and sister. Fashion styles, tattoos, taste in food and music are also to be rendered as insignificant in light of the One who loved the world so much that gave His Only begotten Son that we may have eternal life (John 3:16). The Church is uniquely blessed to be this welcoming force in a world of separations.
The God we worship is three distinctive persons who share the same nature. The Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Yet the source of their divinity doesn’t rule over them. Instead, they occupy His right hand, a position of equality and shared dominion. Our theology can be compared to a tripod. The three legs work in concert together. To deny the validity of one or two of them in favor of the other(s) is as much of a spiritual failure as removing a leg or two from a tripod. Monopods are useful. But, they do not stand on their own.
It is not hard for us to come to the Divine Liturgy with a love for God and those whom we are close to similar with. But, the challenge for us is to reach out to the visitors and the brothers and sisters whom we are different and distant from with His love. The purpose of this evangelism is not to have an affirmative action policy or form a bi-partisan coalition. Our goal as Christians is not simply to “go to heaven and live with Jesus forever.” We are to seek complete and total union with the One who is Three. He is complete in relationship lacking nothing. Likewise, as individual Christians and the Church as a whole, we must seek this bond with those whom worldly standards would say we are separate from. Not that such differences do not exist. But, we are called to transcend these things which divide people. Failure to extend our love for others based on our shared nature and example of the Trinity is to remove one or two legs from a tripod.
Which brings us back to the question asked of Fr. Moses. How do we evangelize to African-Americans and others who have been traditionally isolated from the Orthodox Church? The Brotherhood of St. Moses directly approaches the topics of the role of the African Saints in Orthodox life and has speakers who address racial issues in modern society. FOCUS North America does not intentionally seek evangelization of any particular race. But, poor people of all backgrounds have come to the Church because of the compassionate work of the organization. Any parish can develop a program and strategy to bring in people of diverse backgrounds.
Ultimately, to be welcoming to people of different backgrounds is to be willing to follow the voice of the Lord. Philip had no particular idea of when Ethiopians came to Jerusalem to worship, what scriptures they had questions about, or if an official would welcome a stranger for conversation. But he followed the Holy Spirit, ran (yes, evangelism does take effort) to the caravan, listened to where the man was spiritually, and the ranking official let this man whom he never met before hitch a ride and talk. We don’t know how or when we will come across a stranger who is beyond our comfort zone. As the Spirit calls us, we must be willing to go out and meet them, listen to where they are, and engage with them.